Should You Give Back an
Unwanted Gift?

Birthday Gift

Receiving a gift is always a special occasion.  Especially when it’s a surprise!

Birthday presents – and those given for weddings, graduations, and baby arrivals – may be the modern-day gift card, store certificate, or item you specifically requested.  Predictable, but something you want and will use.

Then there are the gifts that are not expected.  The kind that yield half-smiles and hesitant thank-yous.  What on earth will you do with an unwanted gift?

This question is best answered by my favorite etiquette expert, Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners (Martin, Judith. Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. Freshly Updated ed., W.W. Norton & Co., 2005):  “What can a polite person do then?  The nicest thing to do would be to learn to love it, or at least tolerate it, because it is the symbol of the effort to please.”  

She brings readers back to her main point, which is that “It is the thought that counts.” And advises us what to do when we’ve received something awful.  “Say thank you!  Etiquette demands that you never let the giver know that you didn’t like it.”   

Following up on these guidelines she suggests that it is proper to express thanks, send a thank you note, and never inquire where you might return it.

Though it’s not hard to conjure up likely reasons and motives why this person gave you that gift, it is completely appropriate to fudge the truth as you hold back your real feelings about the gift.

But When You Really Don’t Want it . . .

There are only so many unwanted presents you can keep around.  After all, most of us have limited storage space in our homes.

When storage issues outweigh obligation, Miss Manners presents “the Remedies of Etiquette”:

  • “Do some discrete detective work to find out where it comes from and exchange it for something else.
  • Donate it to charity.
  • Give it to someone who might like it.
  • Toss it into a yard sale.”  (As long as the gift-giver won’t be attending.)

As we go through life facing various conundrums, we search for the right and best things to do.  Sometimes there’s not always a lineup of these aims, so we reconcile and aim for kindness and respect of others.  Being etiquette-ful sometimes asks us to do things that don’t feel instinctual at the time.

When You Must Give Back an Unwanted Gift

My wish for you is that you are never faced with the extreme situation of needing to give a present back to the giver.  But there are occasions when this would be appropriate.

  • The gift is clearly a bribe.
  • The expense is so great that it is inappropriate and makes you uncomfortable.
  • The gift signifies feelings that are not mutual.

While a verbal thank-you is still in order, the actual refusal should be handled with care. 

  • Choose a private moment to give the gift back or to refuse to accept it.
  • Explain that you cannot accept a gift of this size or expense, as it would signify to you something more than what you’re sure the gesture meant. 
  • Or explain that you must return the gift because you don’t feel comfortable in your own mind about what the gift means.

Respect the Gift - and the Giver

Polite conduct defines etiquette and is most often acted out by showing respect.

A gift is an expression of thoughtfulness.  And when someone thinks enough of you to invest the time, expense, and effort to obtain something to present to you, both the gift and the giver deserve your respect.

This is true whether or not you like the gift (or the giver).  Your reputation for doing the right thing will be enhanced, inside and outside of yourself.




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